Item: As measured by roads, bridges, dams, or public transportation systems, the nation's infrastructure was strikingly inferior to what it had been a half-century earlier. (By 2019, China, for instance, had built more than 19,000 miles of high-speed rail; the U.S., not one.) Agreement that this was a problem that needed fixing was universal; corrective action (and government financing), however, was not forthcoming.
Item: Military spending in constant dollars exceeded what it had been at the height of the Cold War when the country's main adversary, the Soviet Union, had a large army with up-to-date equipment and an arsenal of nuclear weapons. In 2019, Iran, the country's most likely adversary, had a modest army and no nuclear weapons.
Item: Incivility, rudeness, bullying, and general nastiness had become rampant, while the White House, once the site of solemn ceremony, deliberation, and decision, played host to politically divisive shouting matches and verbal brawls.
To say that Americans were oblivious to such matters would be inaccurate. Some were, for instance, considering a ban on plastic straws. Yet taken as a whole, the many indications of systemic and even planetary dysfunction received infinitely less popular attention than the pregnancies of British royals, the antics of the justifiably forgotten Kardashian clan, or fantasy football, a briefly popular early twenty-first century fad.
Of course, decades later, viewed with the benefit of hindsight, the implications of these various trends and data points seem painfully clear: the dominant ideological abstraction of late postmodernity -- liberal democratic capitalism -- was rapidly failing or had simply become irrelevant to the challenges facing the United States and the human species as a whole. To employ another then-popular phrase, liberal democratic capitalism had become an expression of "fake news," a scam sold to the many for the benefit of the privileged few.
"Toward the end of an age," historian John Lukacs (1924-2019) once observed, "more and more people lose faith in their institutions and finally they abandon their belief that these institutions might still be reformed from within." Lukacs wrote those words in 1970, but they aptly described the situation that had come to exist in that turning-point year of 2019. Basic American institutions -- the overworked U.S. military being a singular exception -- no longer commanded popular respect.
In essence, the postmodern age was ending, though few seemed to know it -- with elites, in particular, largely oblivious to what was occurring. What would replace postmodernity in a planet heading for ruin remained to be seen.
[Editor's note: Here the account breaks off.]
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular and the author most recently of The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory , is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington, D.C. think tank in formation.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 Andrew Bacevich
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